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Guitars range in price from $50 to $50,000+, so what’s all the fuss about? Is it worth shelling out all the money for a guitar with a cool graphic? Why are some guitars so expensive? What is it about them that makes them “high quality”?
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High quality guitars are made with better materials and are built with smaller error tolerances, with the action of the guitar aligned optimally to avoid buzzing or any other unwanted sound artifacts. Quality electric guitars have higher quality electronics.
Action? Tolerances? What are we talking about here? Read on to find out more.
What Makes a Quality Guitar?
This is not as simple of a question as it sounds–the first question is what type of guitar are you looking at? Let’s break down both types of guitars.
What Makes a Quality Acoustic Guitar?
Whether you’re looking for a Classical guitar or a steel-string acoustic guitar, there are some shared characteristics
One of the most important distinguishing factors of a high quality acoustic guitar is its hardware.
There’s a lot of components to a guitar, from the bridge, to the string pegs to the tuning pegs.
Tuning Pegs are on head of the guitar and they are twisted to change the tightness of the strings.
These seem like an unimportant part of the guitar, but they are actually extremely important. One of the biggest problems with low-quality guitars is that the strings go out of tune easily. One of the biggest reasons for this is the tuning system.
A high-quality guitar’s tuning system is solid, and will stay in the position that you set the strings to for weeks at a time.
A cheap guitar tuning system will go out of tune within a couple minutes of playing–no exaggeration. The gears skip while tuning, or they they simply slide out of their position.
This is one of the easiest ways to spot a cheap guitar. If the tuning system doesn’t feel solid, then the guitar is not high quality.
Don’t know what “action” means on a guitar? Make sure to check out the section below as it’s an important concept to understand.
One easy way to tell if a guitar is low-quality or not is to try playing it. A guitar with bad action is difficult to play–you have to mash the strings to get them to reach their frets and in general it’s a poor playing experience.
This is however a little controversial, since many argue that every guitar regardless of quality should be attended to by a professional luthier. It’s rare in many guitarists minds that a guitar has proper action right out of the box.
So, that being said, another point of quality is how easy it is to action the guitar. If a guitar is high-quality, then the “actioning” system responds well and your guitar is able to be adjusted, easily.
A low quality guitar can be difficult, if not impossible, to “action” properly.
Properly Arched Guitar Neck
This is a bit unfair since even the most high quality guitars need maintenance and attention. However, if you’re looking at a line-up of guitars and you are assessing each guitar’s quality, then the arch of the guitar neck is an important thing to look at.
The term for the arch of the guitar neck is often called relief. To be specific, the concave arch of the guitar neck is called relief, and the convex arch of the guitar neck is either negative relief or bowed.
Generally, it’s normal for a a guitar to have a slight relief. Meaning the neck of the guitar is slightly curved inwards. (If you are holding the guitar and playing it, the neck is slightly curved towards you). This slight relief is what prevents the strings from buzzing against the frets while being played.
Although the guitar neck curve can be adjusted via the truss rod, it’s not a good sign if there’s excessive bow or curve in the neck. If the tightening or the loosening of the truss rod does not impact the curve of the neck as it should, your guitar is not in good shape.
Properly Leveled Frets
I discovered this problem for the first time playing a friend’s guitar they found off of Amazon for less than $100.
It’s actually a very precise process to lay out the frets so that they are all at an appropriate height so you can play each note on the guitar distinctly without buzzing.
On this cheap guitar, one of the frets is too high, which meant when you tried to play the note higher, the note wouldn’t sound because the string was still on the adjacent fret!
A quality guitar will allow you to play each individual fret and note without issues or buzzing. All the frets are leveled in such a way to allow for clean playing.
This is where things get very subjective. The actual type of wood may not be the best indicator that a guitar is of high quality. The workmanship of the wood may make all the difference.
An example of fancier woods you’ll see on more expensive guitars:
- Sitka Spruce
Does this mean that if a guitar is expensive and uses a fancy wood that it’s a high-quality guitar?
No, the workmanship also comes into play. Remember, if you’re trying to save money, if you can market your product as Maple, it instantly gains more value, even if only a small portion of the guitar is constructed with Maple.
Guitars can even have multiple layers of wood with the expensive wood being the very exterior! (I learned about this in this other blog here)
Do a good examination and you’ll be able to see the construction approach.
There’s a lot of marketing terms thrown out there when you’re buying a guitar. One of them that you’ll hear is called “Solid Top.” Solid top means the face of the guitar, the side that faces outward as you’re playing, is constructed from solid wood. This doesn’t necessarily mean one piece of wood, just that the wood is solid.
This is opposed to laminate, which is essentially several layers of veneered thin layers of wood stacked on top of each other. Or, even just veneered plywood.
Will you be able to tell the difference in sound between a solid-top and a laminate-top guitar?
If you’re a beginner, chances are you wouldn’t be able to identify the difference. There is a chance that even an experienced guitarist might not be able to tell the difference. Regardless, a solid-top means the guitar is using more costly materials, and the presumption is that more solid wood means better resonance, meaning more sound from your guitar.
Don’t be fooled, though. Just because a guitar has a solid-top, a guitar that has a laminate top can definitely sound better if it has better workmanship.
This is a great video that demonstrates that it’s not necessarily all about the wood or whether a guitar is made with laminate or solid wood:
So, again, just because a guitar is made from solid wood doesn’t mean that it is going to be higher quality, but it is an indicator. Solid wood guitars are more expensive because it’s difficult to source the wood, perfectly, and for many other reasons.
Once the cost gets higher, the expectation for higher quality increases too.
In other words, if a brand started selling solid wood guitars but they were of poor quality, they would only sell a couple hundred before the secret would be out.
In short, don’t depend on a guitar being high-quality if it’s solid wood, but it’s definitely an attribute the highest-quality guitars have.
Better Joins (Glue)
What is more obvious, though, and perhaps more important is how all the parts are joined together.
High-quality guitars have their parts joined tightly together. You may find on cheaper guitars that things aren’t staying put, such as frets or even the bridge itself. Pay close attention to the neck joint, this is an extremely important part of the guitar and all parts associated must be joined very well to be effective.
The seemingly simple task of gluing is a time-intensive process that must be done with precision.
The hard part about this is that you may not know the glue is bad until months later after having the guitar. As a guitar is played the joins may loosen overtime. If you like the other aspects of the guitar, a luthier can help re-join things back together, again.
Warping can happen to any type of wood–even solid wood guitars are subject to (some even say they are more sensitive) warping. Wood can be treated, though, so it’s a good idea to take a look at the guitar from all angles and make sure there’s no warping of the wood.
High Quality Finish
The finish of the guitar doesn’t really make a difference in the sound of the guitar, but it definitely is like the icing on the cake. It’s not strictly necessary but it will help protect the guitar from damage, and is what makes a guitar look beautiful.
If you have an eye for detail, if you look closely at the finish you can see if the finish lines are tight or if there is any bleeding or aberrations. To see what I mean, at one point in this excellent video, the presenter compares the finish on these two electric guitars:
What is fret dressing? When you fret about the future while dressing?
No no no…. fret dressing is the finishing of the frets.
Frets are metal bars placed perpendicular to the guitar neck. This seemingly simple part of the guitar can make your guitar playing experience miserable if there are any issues.
One thing that some guitar manufacturers skip is properly “dressing” your frets, which means smoothing the frets so that the frets are easy to play and won’t catch or nick your fingers.
People often complain on cheap guitars that the frets are not dressed properly and are sharp. You can always use some steel wool to fix this–this is a relatively easy thing to figure out.
What Makes a Quality Electric Guitar?
Many of the same characteristics of a high-quality acoustic guitar are going to be true for a high quality electric guitar–great hardware, good action, etc.
However, Electric guitars have electronics, and these have their own levels of quality.
This is where things get a little subjective. It turns out it’s really hard to tell the difference between expensive electric pickups vs. cheap pickups.
Don’t believe me? Check out this video:
My ear isn’t supersonic or anything special, but I did feel like the cheaper pickups were slightly less defined then the more expensive pickups. In any case, the less-defined pickups may be a style that fits your playing style better!
Responsive and Solid Switches
An electric guitar has several components that are necessary to work: switches between pickup combinations, knobs, whammy bars, etc.
Sometimes a guitar manufacturer skimp on these, and you may be left with a lot of electronics you can’t adjust or use because of cheap switches.
Connections and Ports
The most important port on an electric guitar is the 1/4 inch audio port. This is where power comes into the guitar and where sound goes out.
Some cheap electric guitars this crucial component is left hung out to dry, for example the port can break, or cave into the guitar so that it’s inaccessible.
A quality electric guitar means that these connection points are absolutely solid.
What Is Guitar Action?
So we’ve talked a lot about guitar action in this post so I wanted to clarify what guitar action is:
Guitar action refers to the distance between the guitar strings and the frets.
The higher the action, the more percussive your playing will be, but also the higher the difficulty in playing. This difficulty is not trivial, either. If a guitar is not actioned properly, it can be very difficult to play.
Action can be adjusted in multiple ways, including adjusting the height of the bridge (the fulcrum point where the strings are tensioned against), often by sanding or shimming, or by adjusting the truss rod.
The truss rod is a metal bar that is in the neck of the guitar. If you tighten the truss rod it pulls back and reduces guitar neck relief, thereby reducing the action. Making these adjustments are very precise (hundredths or even thousandths of an inch) and should be done by a professional luthier if you are not confident in this technique.